Generation “kosher light”— On the Lifestyle of Young Jews of Russian Descent

Tomorrow evening, 9 September 2014, the cultural anthropologist Alina Gromova will present her book “Generation ‘kosher light’” (transcript Verlag 2013) in the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin. As in the case of the many other authors whose “New German Stories” we recently discussed, we put three questions to Ms. Gromova prior to her reading:

A woman with glasses, black clothes and long brown hair looks directly at the camera

Alina Gromova © Judith Metze

Alina, for your study of an international group of young Jews in Berlin you took the city itself as your springboard. Exploring the locations where your subjects live, hang out, mingle and party enabled you to chart their diverse notions of identity, tradition and religion. Why did you opt for such an explicitly spatial focus?

Identity and tradition are terms often difficult to grasp, because they are interwoven with symbols, values, wishful thinking or memories. A space, however, has not only a symbolic but also a physical dimension and is therefore more palpable. Personally, I don’t see a space as a 3-D void waiting to be filled by people or things. On the contrary, people and things are what create a space in the first place. And urban space is especially fascinating, I find, because a broad cultural and religious spectrum often occupies one and the same spot, however tiny; and different elements simultaneously give rise there to their own spaces, so the result is a palimpsest of spaces that then interconnect.

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Peddlers with Caftans, Sidelocks – and Umbrellas: Images of Jews around 1900

In Germany, you cannot rely on the weather being consistently sunny, even in the summertime. In the fall at the latest – dare we think of it already? – we will need to shake open our umbrellas again. Axel Stähler (comparative literature, University of Kent), has shown that the umbrella was once considered a Jewish attribute. He recently offered to share with Blogerim his research on the umbrella’s discursive significance in Wilhelminian Germany.

Dr. Stähler, how did you spot the “Jewish umbrella”?

A dark-skinned man sits with an umbrella

Mbwapwa Jumbo from “Briefe aus Neu-Neuland”, Schlemiel 1.1 (November 1903), p. 2

I was first struck by an umbrella in the hands of the “Big Chief of Uganda,” Mbwapwa Jumbo, a fictitious reporter in the Jewish satirical magazine Schlemiel, who acted as a correspondent from a new Jewish colony in Africa. In fact, in 1903, the British government had proposed to Theodor Herzl to commit land to Jewish settlers in the British Protectorate of East Africa. This proposal, which came to be known as the Uganda Plan, was vehemently disputed in the Zionist movement, and rejected in 1905. No concerted colonial Jewish settlement of Uganda ever took place, although individual Jewish immigrants had built homes there earlier.

In nine letters published over the course of the magazine’s brief lifespan, from 1903 to 1907, the chatty and naïvely amicable Mbwapwa tells of the first Jewish colonists – Orthodox Mizrachi – and of what became of them: in funny prose spotted with Anglicisms, and increasingly also Yiddishisms, he describes how he and his countrymen converted to Judaism. He relates the murder of a reformist rabbi who had been smuggled into the country, and the reformers’ ensuing punitive military expedition. He reports on the colony’s political and cultural trials and tribulations, and, finally, on the emergence of the Zionist movement—since Uganda was not, after all, the Promised Land.  continue reading


“Kiddush Asylum”

When I first heard that the Jewish congregation of Pinneberg is giving “church asylum” to a Muslim, I had to chuckle. The article about it in the online magazine Migazin put the words “church asylum” in quotation marks and used a picture of the dome of the synagogue on Berlin’s Oranienburger Straße – making the linking together of the three monotheistic religions appear intentional.

But now I heard from a friend that there’s a film about the Kiddush asylum at the Pinneberg congregation for a man from the Sudan, and I had to wonder why “church asylum” isn’t “synagogue asylum”.

The Kiddush is a blessing spoken over a goblet of wine at the beginning of a holy day, in order to sanctify the day. Church asylum, as I learned from the film, is actually about a sacred room that protects people who are under threat. The Jewish congregation in Pinneberg has one such room. And it is encouraging to hear – as the head of the congregation explains in the film – why they are using this space to protect a person, at least temporarily, from persecution.

Rosa Fava, director of the “Diversity in Schools” project